Ethics Quote Of The Week: Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson

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“Most theorists of self-government have maintained that certain modest virtues are necessary to democracy and free markets: deferred gratification, diligence, a prudent concern for the future. There is an ongoing American debate about the degree to which government can or should promote such virtues. But here is an extraordinary case of government actively undermining the moral underpinnings of market capitalism for its own benefit. It holds out the promise of sudden wealth without work or productive investment, engaging in a purposeful and profitable deception. A corrupting fantasy becomes a revenue stream, dependent on persuading new generations to embrace it. Perhaps we have given up on government as a source of moral improvement. Does this mean we must accept a government that profits by undermining public virtues? Nearly 20 years ago, William Galston and David Wasserman wrote, “While history indicates that gambling is too ubiquitous to suppress, moral considerations suggest that it is too harmful to encourage. The most appropriate state stance toward gambling is not encouragement, but rather containment.”’

——- Washington Post op-ed columnist Michael Gerson, on the implications of a new report by the Institute For American Values titled, “Why Casinos Matter.”

You can read the press release for the report here. The report itself costs only five dollars to download; I am reading it now. It’s a bargain.

I have nothing new to add that would significantly enhance Gerson’s excellent analysis, or that would differ from my previous posts on the topic of state-run gambling here, here, here, here, here, and here. Perhaps the most basic discussion of what is wrong with state-run gambling, though the post doesn’t even reference it by name, is this 2010 post, “The Ethics of Giving Up On Ethics.” I had forgotten about it, and you know, it’s pretty good, even if I do say so myself. It is also germane.

As I wrote in one of those gambling posts, and something similar in all of them…

“By running gambling operations themselves, the state now officially pronounces gambling legal, desirable and good. This is a core function of government (one that libertarians deny and detest), the job of delineating the moral and ethical values of society by its laws, conduct and policy. If the government and its leaders not only permit harmful conduct, but engage in it and urge citizens to engage in it too, they have pronounced that conduct good. This is called irresponsible and reckless leadership. It is also called corruption….”

In other words, what he said. I haven’t visited this issue for while, because I think the ethics verdict is obvious, and my views are not going to change. Still, it is important to remind ourselves of the gradual, accelerating abandonment of responsible government across the country, and the especially damning hypocrisy of the politician of the left, who claim to champion the poor while exploiting them, and the right, which abandons its moral values for cheap and destructive fiscal gimmicks…especially since drug legalization is poised to follow the same unethical path

_______________________

Source: Washington Post

35 thoughts on “Ethics Quote Of The Week: Washington Post Columnist Michael Gerson

  1. I always thought how interesting and for example only that Louisiana’s state income derived from the gambling industry (in that state) was not dedicated to be used to re-build after major weather events like Katrina. Nah, they used federal tax dollars. The feds and most states have been involved in gambling for over 100 years. Obama wanting the debt ceiling raised is a form gambling. Gambling for some is an addiction that often leads to alcohol addiction which often leads to depression which often leads to suicides. In the end, it seems to be a form of population control. Keep people in line, give them what they desire so the government can continue to be corrupt. Pretty simple plan.

  2. I’m torn on casinos. I do think that casinos are harmful and prey on people’s weaknesses. But I also think people should be free to do things that aren’t good for them, as long as they themselves are the primary victims of their behavior.

    I don’t want a law saying that no one can buy alcohol because alcohol is really bad for alcoholics and their families (although it is), and exploits people’s weaknesses to make money. Nor do I object to the state making some money (via sales tax) from beer sales.

    I’m not clear on why gambling is different.

    • The distinctions are many. The main one is that gambling manipulates brain chemistry through Skinnerian principles, and for the government to encourage a process that undermines rational thought for government profit is despicable. The government may take taxes for liquor, but its laws don’t encourage alcohol abuse—state run gambling in effect does. Also gambling, based on undeniable data, targets the poor, desperate and stupid—at least alcohol abuse ranges across income levels and classes.

      One cannot seriously say that alcohol abuse and gambling harms no one—not when the costs to families, businesses, and taxpayers from both are annually in the billions.

      As with recreational drugs and prostitution, basic utilitarian calculus makes government banning of gambling and alcohol easy calls for me—they have minimal societal benefits and massive detriments—the world would be a better place without all four. The factors of enforceability have to be factored in, however, making alcohol impossible to ban (because it has such cultural roots. Prostitution is arguably the least harmful. Big Gambling is the easiest to ban, because big time gambling does far more harm than private, small scale gambling, and thus is the most ethically objectionable for active government involvement…next to hard drugs, of course.

      The government should not endorse activities that primarily hurt people and those who depend on them.

      • Casinos end up costing taxpayers more in the long run when compared to the tax dollars they generate because of the stupid gamblers who lose everything. That’s why I don’t like them — but isn’t that the ultimate “nanny state” style of governance that everyone preaches against? Shouldn’t people have self-control? Why is the analysis different here, than say aid for poor families who keep having more and more children? Or alcoholism? Unless science has changed in the last couple of years, gamblers and drug/alcohol addicts actually have very similar dependencies.

      • The main one is that gambling manipulates brain chemistry through Skinnerian principles, and for the government to encourage a process that undermines rational thought for government profit is despicable.

        How does gambling manipulate brain chemistry?

  3. Hmmm, I do believe that a state has the right and responsibility to regulate casinos. That means no goodfellas running them and skimming off the profits so they can live like kings. However, state involvement in setting up games of chance ‘for good purposes’ seems to me to be a totally corrupt practice.

  4. My favorite quick take on government lotteries came during an interview with an elderly mobster who had done time for his part in a numbers racket: “The gambling we ran was so bad that they put a bunch of us in prison, and then they took it over. They pay worse odds too!”

  5. Is there an instance in our history where prohibition of a popular vice has worked to the benefit of society as a whole?

    Would like to find an actuarial analysis assessing the impact of legalizing these vices. My guess is that there would be more abuse but less criminal enterprise and incarceration of users. Net positive? idk.

    Alcohol
    Gambling
    Prostitution
    Recreational Drugs

    Outlawing and combating these vices has been a complete failure, despite the hundreds of billions spent doing so. Reagan’s War on Drugs? LOL

    Government intrusiveness is always a balancing act, and lately it has become more tolerant, mostly because of revenue potential. Those with a false frame of reference will always believe that we are becoming less moral, as a society… That has been the mantra for the last 2 centuries.

    Personally, other that alcohol, the rest seem like a waste of time, money and dignity… But that’s just me.

    • That’s nonsense, in my view. So what, frankly, if abusers are incarcerated? they broke the law. If they’ll break one law, they’ll break others…this is why they are called lawbreakers. The laws tell citizens that conduct is unwise and wrong–it’s self-delusion to pretend that this has no effect on the conduct. Tell Russia about how alcohol doesn’t harm society, if you can find anyone sober enough to talk to. Social disapproval is one of the main ways society establishes ethical standards, and one of the main tools of accomplishing that is the law. Their denial of this is the primary reason libertarians have little credibility with me.

      • That’s just crazy. I know a handful of people that smoke pot — and that’s the only law they break. You can’t make such a broad rationalization.

        • Sure I can…and how do YOU know its the only law they break? Their standard is to break laws that inconvenience them and that they choose to disagree with. That’s a lousy rationale. Why do you think lawyers who get arrested for smoking pot get disciplined, Beth? It goes to fitness to practice—trustworthiness. Lawbreakers can’t be law executors and -makers. You’re kidding yourself. If a citizen doesn’t respect laws, I don’t respect the citizen.

          • Jack:

            In your answer to me earlier, you somewhat persuaded me that banning big gambling makes sense (which is the main topic of this post, I acknowledge). But given how unenforceable they are, and how much harm is caused by the mere attempt to enforce them, I don’t think that blanket bans of alcohol, recreational drugs, or prostitution make sense. (Targeted bans of particular types might still make sense, though.)

            Replying to Beth, you said:

            Their standard is to break laws that inconvenience them and that they choose to disagree with. That’s a lousy rationale.

            What about (for example) gay people who broke laws against sodomy before they were found unconstitutional?

            If they’ll break one law, they’ll break others…this is why they are called lawbreakers.

            This contradicts your earlier arguments that suggest that brain science matters. An alcoholic (or drug addict) breaks the law during prohibition, but we can’t logically conclude from that that the same person would have broken the law had prohibition not existed. Ditto for a gambling addict. (Although we could take a harm-reduction approach to gambling addicts by outlawing the most harmful game designs but leaving milder forms of gambling legal).

            Even aside from brain chemistry, people can still break laws not out of intrinsic character flaws, but out of basic needs. A prostitute who can’t find any other work breaks the law because she needs money to survive, but we can’t assume from that that if she was able to work legally, she’d break some other law. And any system of ethics which did mindlessly condemn the prostitute as a lawbreaker whose needs don’t deserve any consideration, should be rejected for its lack of ordinary human compassion.

            And dismissing concern about those hurt by enforcing the laws by saying “So what, frankly, if abusers are incarcerated? they broke the law” is, as Beth said, rationalization. It allows you to endorse any law at all without having to be concerned with, or take responsibility for, the people who will be harmed by your favored laws.

            Suppose that an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan became President and managed to outlaw any Sondheim performances; would you then argue that anyone caught performing Sondheim deserves jail? How can “ethics” be worthwhile if they amount to nothing more than mindless fealty to laws regardless of their worth?

            Also gambling, based on undeniable data, targets the poor, desperate and stupid

            This is a very persuasive point.

            However, the same thing is true of enforcement of anti-drug laws and anti-prostitution laws. It’s very rare for a highly-paid call girl to be arrested, but poorer and more desperate prostitutes get arrested all the time (or are blackmailed into sex with cops to avoid arrest). Drug use is spread out over every class and race in our society, but overwhelmingly it’s poor people and non-white people who are punished for it.

            So why should I care about the poor and desperate when it comes to gambling, in your view, but not give a damn about them when it comes to drugs and prostitution?

            Social disapproval is one of the main ways society establishes ethical standards, and one of the main tools of accomplishing that is the law.

            Three problems with this.

            First, these laws don’t “accomplish” what you say they do. On many topics – pot use, homosexuality, etc – outlawing something has failed to establish that the thing is ethically wrong.

            Second, the “we need to send a message” argument is often used to rationalize unjust laws, like laws that discriminate against gay and lesbian people.

            Third, in the case of acts that don’t directly harm others, it’s wrong for people to enforce their ideals with cops and jails – especially since history shows that people can be horribly mistaken (gay rights, laws against public dancing, etc). The only way to avoid the harms caused by people being wrong, is to make people rely on persuasion rather than physical force. (Note that I’m only talking about crimes that do no direct harm, like smoking pot; obviously murder is another matter.)

            • A couple of things:

              1. Big time gambling, of all the “vices” listed, is by far the easiest to control, and laws limiting it the easiest to defend on a cost benefit basis. (As I wrote in an earlier post, I have a bias here: my favorite uncle was destroyed by legal gambling (dog-racing)). For a very long time, it was largely controlled, with it only being legal in two areas, a national version of the “red light district” urban solution. One would think that the infection of organized crime in those areas would have discouraged wider permission, but the lure of money from the poor did the opposite.

              2. Your argument regarding brain chemistry ignores the first offense. I might get addicted to bank robberies too, but what’s my excuse for the first one? Would I have smoked pot, or at least tried it, in college if it were legal? Undoubtedly—it would have been a lot easier than fending off the pot-heads who tried to razz me into puffing, day after day, party after party. It was against the law, and I don’t break laws. I try to change the bad ones. That’s not noble, that’s basic citizenship. I sympathize with the plight of addicts, but they have free will before they are addicts, and intentionally choose to defy laws, then suffer exactly the consequences that the laws were passed to limit, while I and other taxpayers who obey laws have to pay for them. Peer pressure, social messages, neighborhood culture—yes, yes, but everyone knows what laws are and why they are supposed to be obeyed. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime—honestly, why is that unreasonable?

              3. I’m not using the “send the message’ argument at all. Government laws DO send the message, and obviously so, that certain conduct is harmful enough for the government to have legitimate interest in limiting, regulating, or prohibiting it. There is no neutral message–if the government (society) prohibits it, the message is “this is bad and wrong.” If the government allows conduct without disapproval or interference, then the conduct is NOT bad, from which it is a slippery slope to “OK” to “everybody does it” to “good.”

              • Your argument regarding brain chemistry ignores the first offense. I might get addicted to bank robberies too, but what’s my excuse for the first one?

                Well, as a smart person I know once said, “we do not hold adults accountable to the same degree for their underage acts.” So your argument falls apart if we’re talking about someone who got addicted as a teenager.

                Nor are they the only “innocent” victims of anti-drug laws. Every year, there are thousands of non-drug users, here and in Mexico, who suffer because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time while drug-related violence was going down, either when drug dealers are fighting or because SWAT teams got an address wrong. That’s an obvious and predictable result of the policy you favor, that you can’t rationalize with “they deserved it because they broke a law,” as if people who break laws are worthless and deserve no compassion.

                Nor can you rationalize this by saying “well, then, let’s legalize bank robberies!” The fact is, other categories of law enforcement cause only a tiny portion of the collateral damage of anti-drug laws. At some point, you should consider that the costs of trying (and failing) to prevent people from getting high are not worth the nonexistent gains.

                You work in theater; it’s a virtual certainty that most of your colleagues have been stoned at one time or another, and some of them have been stoned this week. Do you think justice and society would be better served if they were in jail, rather than performing and (I assume) earning a living? If you came across a co-worker in a back alley smoking a joint, would you call the cops?

                You never answered my questions about prostitutes who are forced into prostitution by economic need. (As are many low-level drug dealers, incidentally.) Or about people who break sodomy laws – and those laws WERE enforced, by the way, both directly (arresting people) and indirectly (using the existence of the laws to justify discrimination against homosexuals, such as cops raiding gay bars), so you can’t use your “dead letter law” dodge.

                There’s a danger in laws that are there just to express disapproval of how other citizens like to have sex or have fun, rather than to prevent people from harming others, or to help people. Because your intent is to “establish ethical standards,” rather than achieve a measurable objective, your laws can never be said to have failed, no matter how much harm they cause or how little measurable good they do. This inevitably leads to an intrusive, bad government, and the sort of things “The Agitator” always blogs about.

          • So every adult who once committed the crime of underage drinking is untrustworthy? Aren’t certain sexual acts still illegal in VA? What about people who speed? Jaywalking? Turning right on red (against a posted sign) in the middle of the night even though there are no cars anywhere in sight? Quarter poker night at a friend’s house? The parent that lets his 19 year-old child have a sip of wine at dinner with the family? What about the employee who (illegally) records her boss’s continued harassment because it is her only proof of his activity? But yes, you’re right. All of these offenders are untrustworthy and perhaps should go to jail. Shades of grey Jack.

              • Ok Beth, one chance: What’s logically wrong with this sentence? “So every adult who once committed the crime of underage drinking is untrustworthy?

                Nothing that I can see. Obviously, no person is simultaneously underage and an adult, but all adults were once underage.

                • Yes, but for good reasons, we do not hold adults accountable to the same degree for their underage acts. That’s what “underage” signifies—you’re not trustworthy, or deemed so under the law. An adult, by definition, is not responsible for his own underage drinking, because the law says he shouldn’t have been drinking because he wasn’t responsible.

                    • The rest of the list? Intellectually dishonest. You are highlighting non-criminal violations and dead letter laws (no state prosecutes private, moderate stakes poker, which means it’s not illegal.) “The parent that lets his 19 year-old child have a sip of wine at dinner with the family?”—never, never prosecuted, and not regarded as a crime…a parent may allow a child to have a drink in the home. “What about the employee who (illegally) records her boss’s continued harassment because it is her only proof of his activity?” That’s the grayest one, since in most states it isn’t illegal, and mistake of law would almost certainly be an effective defense. I’m surprised you didn’t include tearing the tags off of mattresses.

                      Using prohibited drugs is usually a felony; repeatedly violating a misdemeanor statute is proof of lawlessness. The claim that it’s OK to willfully break laws is a strange one for an attorney to make. Presumably you didn’t try that is the fitness to practice and character phase of your initial bar admission.

                    • This is Beth you’re talking to… What the fuck were you expecting?

                      So could you name a few solidly Democratic (not DINO) or progressive writers who you’d say are intellectually honest?

                    • So could you name a few solidly Democratic (not DINO) or progressive writers who you’d say are intellectually honest?

                      No. The terms are mutually exclusive. What momentary flashes of self-awareness the left generates is rapidly buried again by their next piece of drivel.

  6. Also, AM, I’d argue that comments with no content other than personal attacks inevitably degrade the quality of discourse. For that reason, we should all try to avoid writing such comments. What do you think?

  7. So in dissecting my comments you do start to draw distinctions between some laws/crimes and others — and pointing out that some crimes are not prosecuted. My point exactly. Some laws are viewed as silly by many and then are just not enforced. I think marijuana is fast reaching the stage where possession also will not be prosecuted. Weed is not for me, but it is for others. There are responsible, otherwise lawFUL adults who occasionally use weed. I don’t think that — in isolation — makes them untrustworthy.

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